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More Growth for Fast Casual Restaurants in Units and Visits

Panera Bread
Panera Bread (photo/bmm)

CHICAGO —Fast casual restaurant chains, which are upscale quick service restaurant (QSR) concepts, continue to be on a winning streak. The segment is growing in both restaurant unit count and customer visits, which is better than can be said for the restaurant industry as a whole. The number of fast casual chain restaurants rose by 5 percent to 19,043 total units, based on a fall 2015 census by foodservice researcher NPD, which includes restaurants open as of September 30, 2015. Fast casual customers increased visits by 6 percent in the year, which ended in February 2016, compared to 2015. Total foodservice traffic for fast casual restaurants rose by 1 percent, according to NPD's ongoing foodservice market research

The top five fast casual restaurant chains based on number of units are:  Chipotle Mexican Grill, Panera Bread, Panda Express, Five Guys Burgers and Fries, and Firehouse Subs. These and other fast casual chains have been among the top success stories of the restaurant industry for the last several years. Of the top five, Chipotle and Panda Express are not franchised.

Chains # of units Percent change
from year ago
Chipotle       1896 9%
Panera Bread       1869 9%
Panda Express       1729 5%
Five Guys Burgers and Fries       1225 4%
Firehouse Subs          925 10%
Source: The NPD Group/Fall 2015 Recount

The fast casual category is still a relatively small slice of the total foodservice industry. Fast casual restaurants represent 7 percent of total quick service visits. And quick service visits represent a whopping 78 percent of total foodservice industry traffic.  In restaurant count, the fast casual category is a small portion of the total 343,407 quick service restaurants in the United States. Unfortunately the total U.S. restaurant count decreased slightly (-.6%) from a year ago to 629,488 units, based on NPD's Fall 2015 ReCount restaurant census.

"There has been significant unit growth in the fast casual category over the past several years, and it hasn't reached a saturation point since traffic is still increasing," says Greg Starzynski, director–product management, NPD Foodservice.  "This would indicate that there is room for more growth for the fast casual category into the foreseeable future."

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Don Sniegowski is editor of Blue MauMau, the daily news journal for franchise & small business owners. Call him at +1 (270) 321-1268, tweet @bluemaumau or email